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Biker shares experiences from 17,500-mile ride

By Joe Ruppel
On October 10, 2011

Matt Kelly is a normal guy. He graduated from North Park University in Chicago, works part-time at REI and, earlier this year, returned from a 17,500-mile bike ride that began in the Arctic Circle and ended in Argentina.

Kelly, 27, visited DePaul on Sept. 29 to talk about his experience as a guest of Professor J. Harry Wray's Biking and Politics class.

"I was expecting him to have a superpower," said Alex Moree, a senior environmental studies major, who attended Kelly's presentation. Moree said hearing Kelly speak made long bike trips seem more possible, and she took it as a challenge to try one.

Robby Hawkinson, junior chemistry major and president of DePaul's Cycle Collective, said Kelly "rekindled" his motivation to take another long trip. Hawkinson completed a 750-mile trip two years ago.

Kelly's 21-month ride began in Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska. From there he rode south through western Canada. He crossed into the U.S. around Glacier National Park and continued through Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Arizona, where he crossed into Mexico. After riding through Central and South America, Kelly ended his trip in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. What Kelly remembers most about the journey is the feeling of awareness that developed among a sea of variables, including new countries, currencies, languages, people and scenery.

"You start to get to know yourself because you're the only constant thing in all those equations," Kelly said. "I started to feel very aware of everything in me and around me. Everything takes on a new meaning. When you're eating, you know you're going to be using that energy."

Kelly's parents moved to Mexico before he was born. He grew up in Mexico City before coming to Chicago for college, where he fell in love with cycling and had the idea to take a ride that he decided would be "all or nothing."

Kelly saved money for a year and a half working as a computer systems administrator.

For most of his journey, Kelly traveled alone. At times he would bike with other cyclists he met on the road, some of who were on trips similar to Kelly's.

"The sense of solitude and losing yourself in the geography, you can do that and get lost a little better when you're on your own," Kelly said.

Kelly averaged 50 miles per day, depending on conditions, geography and points of interest. Instead of rushing through his trip, Kelly took breaks along the way for his own pure enjoyment. He took off both Decembers when he was on the road to visit friends, and he sometimes stopped to see the sights around him.

Kelly's route took him past some of the most impressive sights in the world, including the Rocky and Andes Mountains, the ancient Incan city Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and Bolivia's Uyuni salt flats.

Kelly said the salt flats were one of the more unique places on the trip.

"It was a really eerie scene because when you look in certain directions, all you see is salt on the bottom and sky above," Kelly said.

In Peru, Kelly stayed a week at the Casa de Ciclistas (House of Cyclists), a house that has been offered for the past 25 years at no cost as a haven for touring cyclists.

"To see the guest books in particular was really special to me," Kelly said. "To see people's signatures, names of people who I've read about for years, to finally come to this crossroads of cyclists, it was very special."

"There was a sense like I was finally at home," he said.

While traveling through Mexico, Kelly avoided biking through Mexico City, his childhood home, and instead rode through rural areas of Mexico.

"It was an eye-opening experience," he said. "At one point, I came within 20 miles of my childhood home and there were places that I didn't even know existed. It was a very weird feeling to be so close to your home and to be experiencing new things in a country you thought you were familiar with."

For the majority of his ride through North America, Kelly camped at rest stops and scenic overlooks. In South America, Kelly was often invited to camp in people's backyards or on their porches and was sometimes even invited inside their homes to sleep or eat.

On his trip, Kelly began most mornings with coffee and oatmeal. During the day, he ate sandwiches, cookies and fruit and sometimes ate in the towns he passed through. In the evenings, he usually cooked for himself.

"My favorite part of the day, if I had energy, was to cook, fry up some onions, make some pasta, cut up some tomatoes," Kelly said. In South America, where it was cheaper to buy food, Kelly often ate at markets or food stalls.

While he rode, Kelly played brain games to retain his focus. He would convert the distance on his bike's odometer from miles to kilometers in his head or translate road signs verbatim, which he said was fun because they often don't translate correctly.

At certain points on his trip, Kelly worried about pushing his body to its limits.

"There were a few moments when the physical challenges took their toll and I began to question why I was doing it," Kelly said. "What kept me from not quitting was I knew I would regret the decision to quit."

After Kelly successfully returned home, he found a document that belonged to a relative he had never met who took a bike ride across the U.S. in 1951. In the document, the relative wrote about the time told a newspaper reporter why he rode such a great distance. Kelly read this passage during his presentation.

"My project was like a channel swim," Kelly read. "What I had set out to do, I elected to do alone and under my own power. I told [the reporter], ‘It was not my purpose to go somewhere, but to go somewhere in a certain way.'"

"When people ask me, ‘why did you go on a bike ride?' maybe there isn't a more profound answer than ‘I just wanted to go somewhere in a certain way,'" Kelly said.

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